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School Profile: Chicago Portfolio School

Posted on August 20, 2009 and read 7,089 times

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brendanpic School Profile: Chicago Portfolio SchoolBrendan Watson
Director of Education

Student work shouldn’t look like student work.

It’s a sentiment that everyone enrolled at the Chicago Portfolio School (CPS) can’t help but be reminded of on a daily basis. The letters that make up the motto, at least a foot in height, are reversed out of a bright blue wall that sits just opposite the elevator doors of the bustling ad school.

It all started over eight years ago in a much smaller space, just a block away from the school’s current location in Chicago’s trendy River North neighborhood. Back then Jeff Epstein, the school’s founder, was Creative Director at Leo Burnett and students were offered a weekly night course. Jeff has long since left his post at Leo. He gave up a position contributing to today’s industry for the opportunity help form tomorrow’s. It’s both commendable and ambitious.

From Jeff’s perspective, there was a need for a one-year portfolio school. Most students have already spent four years in college and are anxious to start working. In his opinion it shouldn’t take longer than a year to build a job-worthy book. CPS applicants are reminded that, after all, it only takes a year to learn how to fly a supersonic jet at the Nation Test Pilot School – and tuition there is a hefty $500,000.

The school was built on the idea that young people could be trained to build a book in a year – assuming they’re provided with great teachers, quality resources and heavy doses of motivation/inspiration. There have been skeptics who have questioned the accelerated program, but the proof is in the portfolio flavored pudding. A flip through graduate books confirms that this Midwestern school is a force to be reckoned with.

During my visit I was given the extended tour, which included a stop at the school’s unofficial student bar – Frankie Z’s. Megan — everyone’s favorite bartender who never forgets your name and always remembers your drink — makes sure no one goes thirsty. While there, CPS Associate Director Maria Scileppi took me through just a few of the key differences which make it possible for CPS grads to compete with those coming out of two, three or four year programs. Essentially it breaks down to a strong focus on the portfolio and working intensely for a full year. That means developing concepts right up until the last class. The program was designed so that every class, assignment and discussion directly contributes to developing a portfolio and/or getting a job. Nothing more, nothing less.

Looking through the course calendar, it’s easy to see how classes like Integrated Campaigns, Designing for the Web and Marketing Your Book will all support students’ ambition to break into the country’s top agencies – but what about Stand-Up Comedy? Well that’s their presentation class. Under the direction of Second City Alumnus, playwright and humorist Tim Joyce, students are tasked with creating a three to five minute stand-up routine. The class is a chance to not only have some laughs, but to also get comfortable performing in front of a crowd. After all a client presentation is if nothing else, a performance and learning to work and adapt to the crowd is a skill we could all benefit from. Final presentations are performed at the End-of-Quarter party.

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Maria illustrates the intensity of the year by speaking to the number of marker comps each student creates in her Concept Class. Each week students are given a brief. The following week they’re expected to present 30 marker comps for the brief. In return Maria gives them another brief for the following week. Rinse and repeat – for 44 weeks. And then multiply that by two since students take two concept classes every week. Crunch those numbers and you’ll net out well ovr 2000 marker comps. That’s a lot of Sharpies. And Concept Class is only one of five classes students are required to take each semester. Once you add in some optional classes at sister company Digital Bootcamp and the monthly speaker series, it’s a wonder Frankie Z’s doesn’t go out of business.

July brought further validation of CPS’s ability to compete with educational heavyweights such as Miami Ad School and VCU, when the country’s only Gold D&AD Pencil was awarded to a CPS team. Thousands entered the student competition, only twenty first place Pencils were awarded globally and only one Gold winning team was from the United States. Students Meghan Fredrich and Adam St. John took top honors at the London show in the Website Design / Graphic Design Category for their site “15 for 15 Below”.  Aimed at the creative class (people working in advertising, film, music etc) each week for 15 weeks, the proposed site would auction off 15 minutes of face time with folks such as renowned Creative Director Lee Clow and Best-Selling Author Chuck Klosterman. Winner bidders would be awarded a one-on-one video conference call. Proceeds from the project would go directly to the 15Below Project.

Mike Byrne, Creative Director at Anomaly, spent a Friday afternoon at the school back in March. He was there just prior to Chicago’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day Celebration. However, Mike wasn’t in town to witness the dyeing of the river or the infamous parade. He was there to judge work the students had created for one of his clients, Converse, during the quarterly all-school competition – the Royale Rumble. The agency annually produces on-line videos for the shoemaker and Anomaly agreed to let the students take a crack at the assignment this time around.

The finalists’ would fit right in with those done in years past. Some were live action, while others were stop motion, but they were all done with the same grit and attitude synonymous with the Converse brand. The winning video, which contains an ensemble of beatboxing porcelain dolls and no Converse branding, was created by Tucker Loosbrock. He was awarded a cash prize and as an added bonus, an internship at Anomoly in New York.

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In order to host the competition, CPS had to agree to all the terms and conditions a regular Anomaly employee would have, which in this case meant that the brief had to remain top secret. So out of context, the winning video may seem a bit…..well, yeah. Just watch it.

In his address to the group Mike discussed the Anomaly model, which has been built on collaboration. He spent years at Weiden + Kennedy, an agency known for being internally competitive, and decided that the best work would come from the group working together. He likened it to past artistic movements – all of which involved a number of artists collaborating rather than competing. It was an interesting point to bring up considering the school seems to work under that same belief. It might be by design, or just a product of the type of people working and studying there, but every square foot of the renovated loft that makes up CPS emanates a positive and collaborative vibe that surely contributes to the high-caliber output from the school.

Jeff’s always telling the students to “act like Midwesterners; think like New Yorkers” and that perfectly describes this great bunch of students.

Getting on the elevator to leave, I am reminded one last time that student work shouldn’t look like student work. Looking up I notice the elevator ceiling is completely transparent, another reminder that with hard work and passion the sky is the limit.




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